Exclusive Interview: National Backgammon Champion, Historian & Collector, Detroit’s own MAURICE BARIE!

Exclusive Interview: National Backgammon Champion, Historian & Collector, Detroit’s own MAURICE BARIE!

Backgammon is 70% skill and 30% luck.”- Maurice Barie

Backgammon is an ancient game. Enjoyed by millions of people over thousands of years, the basic concept of the game has remained relatively unchanged.

Backgammon consists of two players who each move 15 solid color checkers around 24 triangular points according to the roll of the dice. The first to bear off (ie: get rid of) all their checkers from the board is the winner.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with local Detroiter and national backgammon champion, historian and collector, Maurice Barie.

“This plastic Doubling Meter from the 1930’s is extremely rare. It’s the only one that’s come up in my 22 years of Ebaying. My starting asking price for this item would be $975.00.”

Maurice Barie holding rare Backgammon Doubling Meter (c. 1930’s)


Maurice Collects Many Things

Maurice Barie

Maurice collects all things backgammon, books, games, books about games, Coca Cola, Monopoly, bookplates, stereoviews, vinyl records, dice cups, etc.

I have one of the largest collections of English language backgammon books, the largest collection of backgammon postcards and backgammon advertisements, probably around 15,000+ pieces in my collection. I sometimes accidentally buy duplicates of things because even I forget what I have.”

“I have too many hobbies. That’s why my house is cluttered. As a collector, one thing I would recommend to aspiring collectors is to try and focus on one, not multiple collections.”

German print (c. 1547) Maurice also owns the original woodblock

German print (c. 1547) Maurice also owns the original woodblock

“Collecting multiple things becomes too unwieldy over time. Rather than being a generalist and trying to absorb everything, try having 100 significant items but of the highest possible quality. My house would be paid off in full by now if I had had that advice to follow.”

Older backgammon books with dust jackets are especially rare. I have every hardcover backgammon book with the dust jacket from 1920’s to present day.”

“From 1960-1979 there’s a gap in the historical documentation of backgammon. In 1998, I talked with the legendary Albanian-Greek backgammon collector Michael “Max” Maxakuli in Las Vegas. Max was President of the Last Vegas Backgammon Club and founder & editor of the Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine.”

“Max said he had an entire warehouse full of historical backgammon stuff covering that particular period. He died in 2006 and I never got to check out the warehouse and assume his collection has been lost or scattered. I would like to know definitively what happened to it.”

History of Backgammon

Leaf from ‘Game Play and Chess Play’ (c. 1604, Germany)

“The true history of backgammon is not really known. The oldest known board game is a Mancala board 5,400 years old from North Africa. The oldest known backgammon board is 5,000 years old from Egypt. There was even a backgammon board found in the tomb of King Tut. However, it is believed that backgammon originated from ancient Persia (modern Iraq).”

“The Ancient Egyptian game of Senet from 3,000 BC is not backgammon but very similar in concept. The Royal Game of Ur from Mesopotamia in 2600 BC, no one knows how it was played exactly but it appears to be somewhat similar to backgammon. Tabula is an ancient Roman form of backgammon.”

“Backgammon spread over the world via the Silk Road trade routes. American colonists were playing backgammon in the 1600’s and backgammon has had several heydays: the 1890’s, late 1920’s-early 1930’s, late 1960’s-1980’s, the computer age.”

“Backgammon exploded in popularity in Western Europe and the United States with the invention of the doubling cube.”

Sometime between 1925 and 1927, the doubling cube was invented. This helped make it popular among gamblers who could double the stakes. They could double and re-double 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, ad infinitum. Prior to that people used a cribbage board to keep score. The doubling cube spread to Western Europe via trans-Atlantic ocean liners and became hugely popular.”

Exceptionally rare because it has intact dust jacket

C. Wheaton Vaughan, one of the pioneers of popularizing backgammon, wrote one of the earliest backgammon books in the 1920’s and helped evolve the rules. He co-wrote ‘Winning Backgammon’ with Grosvenor Nicholas. The copy I have is $425.00, if I were to offer it for sale, because it has the dust jacket.”

Oswald Jacoby was another influential popularizer of backgammon. He was one of the pioneers of backgammon theory, the doubling cube, a member of the New York Racket and Tennis Club, who standardized rules for tournament backgammon in 1930.”

“In 1964, the 1st major international backgammon tournament was held in the Bahamas.”

“Nowadays, thanks to computers, backgammon is more popular than ever but the majority of players play online. I personally think its more fun to play in-person. I usually play at coffeehouses like the Java Hutt in Ferndale.”


How it All Started for Maurice

Maurice Barie custom doubling cube

“I had been playing backgammon in high school and at that time there was a columnist Alfred Sheinwold who did a syndicated column in the Detroit News about backgammon.”

“In 1989, I wrote Alfred and he wrote me back saying there were 7 backgammon clubs in Michigan. The Plymouth Club intrigued me the most because one of Michigan’s top players, Dean Adamian, played there.”


The Plymouth Club

Rare backgammon tapestry

The Plymouth Club met weekly at The Box Bar in Plymouth, Michigan. They were doing tournament play with money play on the side and using the doubling cube. I wasn’t familiar with the cube at the time, so for the first 5 weeks, I didn’t play in the tournaments, I just watched. It was $10.00 entry with a $5.00 side pool. I just observed Dean’s strategies with the doubling cube.”

“Then, the 6th week, I tried it and came in 2nd place in the tournament and won a total of $82.00. At the end, I played in the chouette money game. I played 7 other players simultaneously on one board. In one game I won 192 points at $3.00 per point and I backgammoned₁ everyone at 16 cubes.”

I ended up winning $692.00 in that one game. My weekly income at the time was only $125.00 as a student assistant at Wayne State University. At that point, I became energized to start collecting backgammon books to learn as much as I could. Dean is still the tournament director for the Plymouth Club, although they play in Canton now.”


Backgammon Skill Takes Time

Cigar label featuring backgammon (c. 1890’s)

It took me 6 years to become a decent player. I learned how to hand rollout moves. There are 36 dice permutations for a hand roll-out. If you do 360 hand rollouts, you’re doing 10 rollouts per dice roll. This is done if you don’t understand a position, you hand-roll it out with a different permutation every time until you understand it.”

“Today, computers can do this in minutes, as opposed to days. I still recommend hand-rollouts for backgammon students because there are certain positions the computer does not get correct, typically seven or eight ply rolls into the future.”

In backgammon, the highest ELO rating₂ is 2100. I’m around 1750. I used to be ranked 58th place of all-time backgammon players.”

RARE signature from Oswald Jacoby. The book he inscribed is ‘The Four Aces System of Contract Bridge’ (c. 1935).

RARE signature from Oswald Jacoby. The book he inscribed is ‘The Four Aces System of Contract Bridge’ (c. 1935).

“There’s still some backgammon clubs in Michigan. Carol Joy Cole’s club in Flint is the biggest. Metro North meets at the Crash Landing Bar in Warren. The Plymouth Club in Canton. The Grand Rapids Club. Nationally, Chicago is the hottest area for backgammon. And you’ll find the most high-stakes money players in Vegas and NYC.”

“The world’s top player is a Japanese man named Mochy (aka: Masayuki Mochizuki). In fact, the world’s top 3 players are all in Japan.”

“Big money players seek out Fish. A good example was the now deceased heir to a popular liquer brand fortune and later a construction and real estate mogul, who would play for $300 per point and frequently lose 200 points in a night. Nowadays, a lot of the fish have dried up but some big money games still go on. The oil sultans, for example, play up to $5,000 per point.”


Maurice Toured the United States

Collier’s Magazine (April 11th, 1931) backgammon table featured on cover

In 1996, Maurice toured the USA on a hot streak. He won first or second place in 7 of the 11 tournaments he entered, taking MI, NY, OH, PA, IL, NV and IN.

“The year I toured the United States, I read that Stillwater, Minnesota was comprised of nothing but antique shops. On my way there, I stopped in Madison, Wisconsin and went to all 7 used book stores there and bought 83 used backgammon books for a total of $257.00. Some were from the 1920’s-30’s and in supreme condition with dust jackets. In Chicago, a money player bought half the books from me for $2,500.”

“I made it to Stillwater and found a Colliers Magazine featuring backgammon from April 11th, 1931. I paid $3.00 for it. I ended up selling 39 reproductions of the cover at $158.00 each. The original is French matted and framed and hanging in my living room.”

‘Playing the Game of Backgammon’ (c. 1891) photograph taken by Swedish photographer Gustave Berggren. Maurice also owns the original glass plate negative.

In 1998, Maurice won the Michigan Summer Championships, a double elimination tournament and finished 3rd overall in the United States on the American Backgammon Tour. He also played in the Monte Carlo World Championship and at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in Switzerland.

“In Monte Carlo, I was in the round that guaranteed winning at least $15,000. My opponent rolled double sixes, seven consecutive times in a row. That was a bitter loss.”

“In Europe, they use narrow dice cups, which look like cigarette packs. You get much more action on the dice with the round American cups, which I prefer.”


Famous Backgammon Players

Clark Gable playing backgammon on the set of ‘Honky Tonk’ (c. 1941 MGM Western). Maurice also owns the original negative.

“Backgammon in the 1970’s-80’s was everywhere. It had corporate sponsorships at tournaments and was endorsed by celebrities. Then poker and Texas Hold Em seemed to takeover since the potential for higher stakes and greater earnings was higher.”

Lucille Ball was a huge promoter of backgammon. She would finance and sponsor many tournaments.”

Hugh Hefner playing backgammon @ The Playboy Mansion.

Hugh Hefner was also a major supporter of backgammon. He would throw regular backgammon parties at the Playboy Mansion.”

“Some other famous backgammon enthusiasts are: Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Groucho Marx, Roger Clemens, Lewis Carroll, etc, very long list of people.”

Lindsay Lohan and friend playing backgammon.



Maurice drinking from his Caffeine Molecule mug.

Maurice grew up in Metro Detroit and received his B.S. in Liberal Arts with a concentration in fine arts and graphic design from Wayne State University.

From 1981-1993, he served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. During Operation Desert Storm, he was sent to Saudi Arabia where he drove 18-wheelers 18-22 hours per day.

“That sort of experience allows you to appreciate the things you have at home. In the desert all we had was bare sand and tents. We built flooring out of old pallets for the tents to make it more tolerable.”

“I’m also a certified credit counselor. It’s enjoyable to help people evolve their financial understanding. The process of credit repair can be around 3-years long, it’s not overnight.”


Maurice Loves Bookplates

Maurice holding a Rockwell Kent bookplate

“I have 300 bookplates or so. I’m a generalist. I really like Rockwell Kent bookplates, bought a box of 50 of them. Also enjoy Edward Gorey.”

“To me they’re miniature pieces of art. I’ll buy a book for fifty cents just to get the bookplate. I don’t collect them for rarity.”

If you want rarity, the most desirable ones are bookplates for a famous person who inscribed their own bookplate. Also, bookplates from the 1500’s-1700’s are heraldic and scarce.

Maurice holding an Edward Gorey bookplate


Maurice’s Book Collection

The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845-48) folio prints from Audubon

“I love the work of Kurt Vonnegut and have first editions of Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and others.”

“I also collect mystery, fiction, true crime, books with engravings, chromolithographs. One year, I got a great two-volume set of chromolithographs from John King called ‘Quadrupeds of North America’. There were 68 chromolithographs in there.”

“So for Christmas, I asked friends and family what their favorite animals were and gave them out as unique gifts. The biggest compliment to me was seeing them framed and hanging in some of their houses afterwards.”


Maurice Publishes a Rare Backgammon Book

Maurice holding his book ’Backgammon as Played in Hollywood’

’Backgammon as Played in Hollywood’ is an obscure book from 1930. It’s about how the doubling cube revitalized backgammon in the 1920’s.”

“I first heard about it online. To my knowledge, it’s only available on microfilm. I’ve never seen an original print copy. However, if you have the original with the dust jacket, it would be around $500.00 for my personal collection.”

’Backgammon as Played in Hollywood’

“So, I went to the Library of Congress and copied the book off microfilm. I printed 250 hardcover copies with dust jackets in Smyth binding.”

I only have maybe 60 copies left. If you want to purchase the book, they are $45.00 each, including shipping and handling. Email me if you’re interested.

Maurice Barie

[email protected]


Maurice will pay $$$$ for the following items:

Charles Hollander’s $5 million dollar backgammon set

If you own these items and want to sell them, email Maurice.

If you want to buy rare backgammon items, email Maurice.

Maurice Barie

[email protected]

“I’m looking for the newsprint editions of Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine from 1975-77. The newsletter ones, not the glossies. If somebody has them, email me and you will be handsomely rewarded.”

Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine feat. Tina Turner

Backgammon stamps are uncommon. There’s about 5,000 chess stamps and maybe only 5 backgammon ones. Supposedly someone in North Korea privately printed a backgammon stamp and a postal employee smuggled 10 of them out of the country. I’ll buy one for $500 if it’s genuine. Another very rare one is from Yemen. If you have either of these, let me know.

Las Vegas Backgammon Magazine feat. Tina Turner


Upcoming Events

42nd annual World Backgammon Championship in Monte Carlo (July 2017)

42nd Michigan Summer Backgammon Championships @ Sheraton Novi (June 30-July 3rd, 2017)

Leonardo Di Caprio smoking a cigar and playing backgammon



“A backgammon is a triple game and happens when one player has taken off all of his or her checkers and the opponent has one or more checkers in the inner home court or on the “bar” (all they way on the starting point). A gammon is scored as a double game and happens when one player has taken off all of his or her checkers and the opponent has one or more checkers in the outer board or has not taken off any checkers.”


“ELO rating was developed by Hungarian -born American physics professor Arpad Elo used for calculating the relative levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games. A 100 point difference in skill level means the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 63% of the time. A 200 point difference would mean the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 75% of the time. A 300 point difference would mean the higher rated player would defeat the lesser player about 80% of the time.”

J. Edgar Hoover playing backgammon in Miami (c. 1937)

Maurice holding a Stereoview

Stereoview print of sailors playing backgammon. The game Acey Deucey is also a popular gambling game with the U.S. Navy.

Stereoview print of sailors playing backgammon. The game Acey Deucey is also a popular gambling game with the U.S. Navy.

Stereoview print of sailors playing backgammon. The game Acey Deucey is also a popular gambling game with the U.S. Navy.

Exclusive Interview: FRANCIS GRUNOW, co-creator of the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, Detroit’s Mardi Gras Parade!

Exclusive Interview: FRANCIS GRUNOW, co-creator of the annual Marche du Nain Rouge, Detroit’s Mardi Gras Parade!

*The Nain! (photo by: Kate Sassak)

Detroit legend has it that a taunting, menacing red dwarf with glowing, piercing crimson eyes, sinisterly named The Nain Rouge, terrorizes the City of Detroit for fun.

This devious trickster is the ingenious creator of 10,000 torments for Detroiters. And every year when he manifests for a confrontation, it is our duty as Detroiters to banish him back to the shadows.

The Nain Rouge lives in the shadows. He also lurks in the sewers, inside the cavernous underground salt mines in Southwest Detroit, in the blast furnace pits on Zug Island, inside the rubble mounds of old buildings, curled up inside rusted out car trunks at junkyards, atop piles of old mildewed carpets in shipping containers, coiled inside unoccupied coffins in abandoned funeral homes, wedged in secret boroughs along the Detroit Riverfront, inside the backyard doghouse at the Manoogian Mansion, etc.

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)

The Nain is a paradox. He is everywhere and nowhere.

You may have seen him before somewhere, in quick glimpses, out of the corner of your eye. You’re stopped at a light on Gratiot. You peek in your side view mirror just in time to see the Nain’s head quickly duck down from the open window of an old building.

You may have seen him, illumed by moonlight, lapping up pools of discarded Faygo in the sunken warp of old alleys or rummaging thru the dumpsters behind Coney Island for coney dogs.

There are even people who think the secret ingredient in Bucharest’s ridiculously good Chicken Shawarma recipe is a drop of blood from the Nain Rouge.


Legend Has It…

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Nain Rouge means “Red Dwarf” and there have been hundreds of reported sightings of this strangely grinning ghoul in Detroit since 1701.

According to Marie Hamlin in her 1883 book ‘Legends of Le Detroit’, Cadillac landed in Detroit on July 24th, 1701 at the foot of present-day Griswold Street near villages of Hurons and Ottawas.

He built Fort Pontchartrain and shortly thereafter, encountered the Nain Rouge. Cadillac hit the red imp with his cane, saying “get out of my way!” That was a big mistake. The Nain Rouge laughed madly and great strife ensued.

Supposedly, the mere appearance of the Nain Rouge heralds disaster. And if offended, he can only be appeased thru flattery. In the Great Fire of 1805, the Nain Rouge was seen running thru burning buildings, doing cartwheels and cackling wildly.


Detroit’s Mardi Gras

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


The annual Marche du Nain Rouge was started by Detroiters Francis Grunow and Joe Uhl in 2010.

This is a free family-friendly march down Cass Avenue thru the old Chinatown section of Detroit’s Cass Corridor.

All attendees are supposed to be masked and/or fully costumed.  Pets and kids are welcome.


Francis Grunow Speaks!

Francis Grunow


I was fortunate enough to sit down with the co-creator, Mr. Francis Grunow and this is his tale:

“The Marche du Nain Rouge is a family-friendly community art parade. It’s the theme of Mardi Gras meets Burning Man in Detroit’s Cass Corridor.”

“This is a ritualized Spring event of starting fresh. The entire concept is themed around the Nain Rouge in that for the past 300 years, on the Sunday after the Vernal Equinox, Detroiters gather together to banish the Nain Rouge.”


How it All Started

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“My friend Joe Uhl and I were sitting at a bar in the dead of winter in 2009. I was still at Wayne State University, Joe had graduated.”

“Joe was saying how he went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and it was one of the most cathartic things he’d ever felt. There was a surging sense of renewal and a reestablishing of a center of gravity for the whole community.”

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“It was then that we realized there was a void in Detroit which needed to be filled. The city of Detroit is older than New Orleans and we needed our own Mardi Gras celebration.”

“Both cities have different cultural trajectories and both have connexions with Cadillac. He founded Detroit, then became Governor of Louisiana. Both cities grew from French colonial outposts and both are important and unique American cities that have given tremendous cultural gifts to the world. What would Detroit’s Mardi Gras be like? Our response was the Marche du Nain Rouge.”


The Marche du Nain Rouge

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“We want the parade to be intimate, homemade, and accessible. There’s a unique Detroitness to it. Overall, it’s about rebirth and renewal and getting the stuff that keeps us down off our backs and bringing the city together as one unified whole.”

“The Marche is a sort of younger brother to Theatre Bizarre. It’s participatory, we’re giving people a large theme/concept they can make their own and keep evolving.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of creativity, self-expression and participation at the Marche. The level of involvement and effort and attention to detail that are put into the costumes and parade floats every year, just blows me away.”

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“We’re working on how a thing like this can be more popular, accepted and evolve to be more inclusive for the greater community. I want everyone to feel like they can absorb themselves into this parade and use it and evolve it.”

“In the 1500’s, Rabelais talks about how the role of the fool in the court was very important. The fool was able to put everyone on an equal level, bringing the king and the peasant into the same space. The Marche du Nain Rouge is the same type of deal. It serves a healthy role in society to have this safe space where people can be ridiculous in a safe and fun way. We need creative outlets like this.”


Sponsors and Organizers

The Nain Rouge Crew!


“We have 30 or so sponsors. Midtown Detroit Incorporated gives us half of our $60,000 budget. There’s also the two dozen local bars, restaurants, and retail shops in the area who help out.”

Ralph Taylor, a native Trinidadian, is our host and he runs Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions.”

“We’re a non-profit and we have a core group of 6-10 committed people who actively work on the Marche du Nain Rouge throughout the year, giving thousands of hours of unpaid volunteer time.  Then we have an extended base of 40 or so volunteers who help with marshaling (crowd control) and other aspects.”

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


The City of Detroit has been a great partner in this amazing journey with us. It’s officially endorsed by them every year and they work with us on public safety. We pay for Detroit Police and Wayne State Police, Detroit Fire Deparment, porta johns, Poco barricades, etc, it’s a lot to organize.”

Scrubby Bubble from Eddy Bullock’s Three Fifty Concepts will be there.”

“Our creative director Vince Keenan, designs a lot of the banners, costumes, and so forth.”

“This year, we have Anime Manga mechanized, toy, roboty Japanese type stuff, designed by Dave Presnell. Dave works as a fabricator at The Parade Company.”

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“Our design this year was done by local artist Pink (aka: Nicole LaPointe) she’s an awesome collaborator from Woodbridge. She did this year’s poster and the comic book.”

Ryan Doyle did the cockroach and the fire-breathing dragon. He’s a visual artist and film set designer, he did work on Kong: Skull Island.”

Clare Pfeiffer is our PR and media person. She also does great marketing work for the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores and the Henry Ford Fair Lane Estate on the campus of University of Michigan-Dearborn.”

The Masonic Temple has been a tremendous host to us over the years. We are grateful to them and love working with them.”



Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


I grew up on Detroit’s Northwest side. Then there was a period where I lived in NYC for 10 years. Went to Columbia University to be a city planner, lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I came back to Detroit in 2001 and now I do consulting, community development, and housing policy.”


What kind of costumes should you wear?

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“We encourage homemade costumes, the more creative the better. Anything goes. People do really cool things both as individuals and as groups. It can be conceptual or free form.”

“Whatever the case, at least do something, rather than just coming plain. Wear an accessory, even a little something. You are the spectacle. There are no observers, everyone is a participant. For example, one year, this guy had 50 stuffed animals torn open and attached to his body in different ways.”

“Every year, we also have custom art cars with a different look and aesthetic. We have a lead car at the head of the procession and the art cars follow. We would like to incorporate more custom cars, bikes, parade floats as time goes on.”


Advice for First Time Attendees

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


“Come with an open mind. Come dressed as an alter ego. Come ready to explore Detroit in a different way and experience the Cass Corridor, talk to new people. The streets are open to you on this day, they are yours.”


The Marche du Nain Rouge is an incredibly fun time. If you have never experienced it, do yourself a favor and go check it out!

8th annual Marche du Nain Rouge

Sunday, March 26th, 2017



Parade route!


Noon = everyone gathers outside Traffic Jam Restaurant (511 W. Canfield, Detroit)

1pm = the March starts. We walk down Cass Avenue to the steps of the Masonic Temple (500 Temple Street, Detroit)

3pm = March disperses

2pm-6pm = official after party inside the Masonic Temple Theater. There will be DJ’s, beer, food. There will also be a Kid’s Area.

Some surrounding bars to check out: Temple Bar, Old Miami bar, TV Lounge, 8 Degrees Plato, etc


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)



Parking Lot #72 (4510 Cass) $7.00

Structure #8 (91 W. Forest) $7.00


Any other questions?


[email protected]

Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)








Facebook event page



Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)


Marche du Nain Rouge! (photo by: Kate Sassak)

Exclusive Interview: JOHN KING, owner of John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit, internationally voted one of the World’s Best Bookstores!

Exclusive Interview: JOHN KING, owner of John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit, internationally voted one of the World’s Best Bookstores!


You have to hand it to John King. He’s a self-made businessman who built a fifty-year powerhouse of books.

He’s outlasted Borders Books, watched the rise of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, and survived razor-thin years of the Great Recession. Even with hordes of hipster millennials myopically glued to their smartphones and Kindles, his bookstore thrives and prospers still.

John K. King Used & Rare Books is a Detroit institution. Many people have amassed entire personal home libraries over the years just by shopping here. You can lose an entire day among literally 1,000,000+ books spread over 4 floors and 900 categories housed inside an old glove factory.

John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)

Repeatedly voted one of the top bookstores in the world by numerous publications including Business Insider, CNN, and others, John King Books is a must-visit spot on the Global Bookstore Trail, that grand design connect-the-dots map of outstanding bookstores running in a serpentine pattern across the globe.

Many bibliophiles from around the world have made a pilgrimage here to Michigan’s largest bookstore, to shelves overflowing et infra with spectacular inventory ranging from: standard classics, paperbacks, hardcovers, selective esoterica, illuminated medieval manuscripts written on vellum, woodcuts on china paper, armorial bookplates, books bound in crushed Moroccan leather, old rarities sporting beautifully marbled foredges and endpapers, etc. The dust jacket was invented in 1832 and many early examples are here as well.

Let’s Go Inside

John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)

You enter the parking lot on a blind curve and pull up to a bluish-grayish building with a giant faded glove painted on it, and park at a hard slant in the oddly angled driveway, which overlooks a busy expressway.

You enter the building and ascend into book heaven. That lovely characteristic “old book smell” of lignin acids breaking down in the pages of old books wafts up your nose like a curled finger of smoke in an old cartoon.

Wandering John King’s is a sort of calming, meditative experience and patrolling the old wood floors with you are a dedicated army of a dozen employees in red aprons.

John King walking through John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)

I walk inside and John King greets me. “One thing you should include in your article is we’re the only radio dispatched bookstore in the country. All employees have walkie-talkies here. That, plus I’m blessed to have a great staff of people using those radios.”

Tom Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr.) the rare book room manager, Toni Caron the office manager, and Darlene Weaver have all worked for me since the 1980’s. Deb Lee, the store manager, has been with us since the early 1990’s. Let’s head to the basement, I got something to show you. Hey George,” John nods at a customer. He knows many customers by name. And there are thousands of regular weekly customers here.

John takes me downstairs and we find Tom Jr. and Steve sifting through hundreds of boxes of books. John is wearing a green Italian army jacket and starts dusting off books with a paint brush.

Thomas W. Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr) the Rare Book Room Manager (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

“We just bought the entire collection of a book hoarder in Detroit. He died, so his heirs sold us his books, everything in his house and then at the end, they asked us if we wanted to buy his actual house along with it, so we did.”

“Everything is always busy. Very seldom can I sit down and have some free time. We did an estate in San Francisco a while back where the woman left a giant multi-million dollar mansion in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. I was called in for the books. When I got there, I found the books abandoned, neglected, covered in rat shit. So I’m up there flinging the rat shit off books, trying to find the buried treasure. Only ended up finding a box and a half of mediocre stuff. Here’s a woman worth tens of millions of dollars and she lived like a homeless person. She also drove an old Buick Century that was full of actual garbage. It was crazy.”

Tom Jr. chimes in, “We also just acquired a rare and highly coveted leaf of the Gutenberg Bible.”

John says, “Oh yeah, we gotta show that to him. Let’s go!”

John King: The Early Years

John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)

“I was born in Detroit and grew up on the Southwest side near St. Andrews Parish on McGraw. I still visit the neighborhood pretty frequently. I have a dog. A white maltese named ‘Sophie’ and I usually take her down to Clark Park or the old Train Station on my bicycle with me since she fits right in the basket. Toni has a dog, too. A shih tzu pug named ‘Charlie Dickens’ and the two dogs get along great together.”

“I’m very glad to see El Club the music venue opened near Clark Park. When I was a kid, that building used to be an old Lithuanian Club. You had to have an actual key to get inside there, since it was a private social club. You’d go in there and it was a private bar with a bunch of Lithuanians drinking. Always some fun immigrants therein.”

“I attended Fordson High School in Dearborn. It’s a really cool castle-looking building. My guidance counselor there was Elsie Freitag. Not only is she the reason I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent but she covered for me when I frequently skipped school to go sell books.”

John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)

“I used to take the bus into Downtown Detroit all the time. Since I was only a kid, I could only go into bookstores in the Sixties. Detroit had about two dozen old bookstores back then. And I thought wow I can make money doing something I love: selling books!”

“I was an opportunist. I didn’t have a corner like a drug dealer. You know, I’ll shoot you if you start selling books on my block (laughs) it wasn’t like that. I was more peripatetic selling books out of the trunk of my 54 Packard. Later, I sold them out of a 59 Cadillac hearse.”

“Back in the old days, it was romanticized having a used bookstore. But the reality is you have to be tenacious. Running a successful bookstore goes by some but not all principles of business. I had no formal business education. Had to learn everything the hard way, had to learn by doing. I made all the classic rookie mistakes and even invented some new ones.”

old store sign from John King store when it was at 214 Bagley Street (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

“Back in the 50’s and 60’s in Detroit, the golden age of Detroit used booksellers, the people who ran the bookstores were almost always very eccentric personalities. You know, Damon Runyon type characters. I found them interesting and entertaining and I learned the book trade by watching and through osmosis. There wasn’t a ‘How to Be a Used Bookseller’ book, you just had to get out there and start doing it.”

“Then I went to New York for a little bit to attend college, came back, attended Wayne State University on and off for seven years, selling books the entire time. Now I have no time for anything. I’m busy every day of the year hustling books. I should’ve stayed in school and become somebody and been retired by now.”

History of John K. King Used & Rare Books

Tom Jr. (photo by Ryan M. Place)

John’s current main building, 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., is actually his third location over the years. Tom Jr. fills in the gaps for us:

“This building was built in 1906 by an architect named Stratton. He later married Mary Chase Stratton, the Pewabic Tiles lady. Since he built this place before they met, there are no Pewabic tiles here. Up until 1929 this building was a hat factory. Then it became the Advance Glove Company.”

“When the expressway came, instead of knocking the building down, they physically moved the entire building here. In 1947 this building was put on Alabama gum wood rollers and rolled here from 250 feet down the block. Then in 1981, the glove company went bankrupt and left the building vacant until John purchased it in 1983. We officially opened here January 1st, 1984.”

John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit

John chimes in:

“Yeah I had two other locations before this one. My very first actual store was in 1971 in Dearborn. It was located on West Warren Avenue at Miller Road across the street from the old Camelot Theater. We were there very temporarily, less than a year.”

“I was there against my will actually, meaning due to the building we were in. A sordid cast of people lived upstairs from us. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes, etc, a lot of really nice people. The cops were always coming in. And the very first person to come into my bookstore stole an expensive book. That’s how my bookstore career started. He stole a book on Civil War Regimental History. Him and his whole family were thieves. One of the guys, his cousin, used to get hired to work at museums just so he could steal stuff out of museums over time.”

“By the end of 1971, we had moved to the Michigan Theater building at 214 Bagley Avenue in Downtown Detroit and we were there until moving to this location in 1983.The Bagley location reminded me of the old 4th Avenue bookstores in New York City.”

John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit

“I also still own The Big Book Store on Cass, which we’re closing soon. Opened in the 1930’s, it’s Detroit’s oldest bookstore. It’s been at its Cass location and run by Bill Foulks since 1988. Over the years, we’ve mainly used it as a warehouse for duplicate books. Some German developers approached me recently about buying the building. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I sold the building. It’s nothing personal, just business.”

“We also own John King Books North in Ferndale. That store opened July 1st, 1988. Tom Jr. used to manage it one day a week for 15 years. Now, Jason Schusterbauer is the current manager. There’s maybe 60,000 books there.”

“We have so many books, we could open ten book stores if we wanted, there’s just no time.”

John King’s Rare Book Building

John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)

Behind the main bookstore, there is a slightly smaller, prairie-style building with some added stained glass windows, which used to be an architect’s office. This building is John’s Rare Book Annex and is not open to the casual window-shopping public.

Thomas W. Heitjan, aka: Tom Jr., has been the Rare Book Room Manager here for years. Tom Jr. grew up on Detroit’s Eastside. He lived one block down from Richard ‘White Boy Rick’ Wershe on Hampshire Street. Tom Jr. has worked for John since 1985. Tom explains:

“We have about 30,000 books here. Toni Caron is our office manager and the Rare Book Annex is closed to the general public due to zoning and security issues. We would love to open it to the public, we just don’t have the ability to make it a tourist attraction.”

John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)

“Once a year, we let the Detroit Historical Society do a public tour here. Otherwise, it’s for private collectors who are vetted and noted and display serious intent. For example, somebody flew in from New York City recently and bought $100,000 worth of books here for their own private library.”

“When we buy collections of books, we sometimes end up with collections of other things like circus posters, statues, etc. That’s how we acquired this interesting Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago.”

Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

“We do a lot of estate work, at least 2-3 per week. We travel all over the country to source books. John likes the Bay Area, so we’re out there several times per year for book collections. There was one estate in Daly City where no one but us attended. We ended up finding a treasure trove of old movie books signed by movie stars. Some books had 20+ signatures throughout the book.”

Some choice books at John King’s:

leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455 AD) photo by: Ryan M. Place

So, about that Gutenberg. John recently acquired a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1455 AD). This is an incredibly rare piece. Tom Jr. explains:

“The Gutenberg leaf we have features the Gospel of St. Luke where Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to cast out daemons. Beelzebub is mentioned twice. It’s incredible to actually have a page from the world’s first printed book.”

old books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

Here is a short of list of some other goodies:

  • First edition Federalist Papers (1788)
  • First edition Book of Mormon (1830)
  • First Great Gatsby
  • Salvador Dali original drawings
  • First edition Treasure Island (1883)
  • First U.S. edition Through the Looking Glass (1871)
  • First edition On the Road hardcover
  • Books with fore-edge paintings. These images are hidden until you fan the book.
  • An entire section of books inscribed on their flyleafs by U.S. Presidents
  • Several books signed by Henry Ford
  • Kate Greenaway original painting
  • Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91

Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

The Pablo Escobar book, yes this was drug dealer Pablo Escobar’s personal book. It features fun caricatures his friends put together from drug cartoons, his facsimile signature and then his actual signature and fingerprint. Very rare item. A copy not as good as ours, their version only has the facsimile signature, is currently for sale on Ebay in Miami for $100,000.”

Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

John’s Rarest Book: the one that got away

The Curtis North American Indian Set

“The one I remember most vividly is The Curtis North American Indian set. We sold that in October 2012 for $1.44 million dollars at Swann Galleries in Manhattan.”

“The set consisted of 20 folios, 722 large photographs on Japanese tissue and 20 text volumes with 1500 smaller photos. The photos were so evocative, you almost wanted to cry looking at them, realizing how beautiful they are and how these people were just wiped out. The photos were printed over a ten year period. It was particularly rare because it was a totally complete set and also, many of the photos were signed by Curtis himself. I miss it.”

“When we can, we try to shake each book to see if any stray ephemera falls out. Sometime in the late 1980’s, our employee Tom Schlientz was shaking out a book one day and some Mark Twain photos fell out. These ended up being personal unpublished photos that were taken by Twain’s friend. The photos featured Twain riding in a wagon with a little girl and a horse. They were taken sometime around the turn of the century in Hartford, Connecticut. We sold the photos.”

Famous Customers at John King Books in Detroit

John King store receipt inscribed by John K. King

John King Books is world famous. The list of well-known people who have been customers here is far too long and varied to include here. People like David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Zappa, Timothy Leary, David Byrne (Talking Heads), Jay Leno, Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Governors, Senators, the Levin brothers, Roger Smith head of GM, Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal), Sonny Elliott, Carmen Harlan, Edie Adams, Neil Giraldo, the famous British female impersonator Dame Edna, etc, hundreds of others.

Tom Jr. displaying beautiful fore-edge painting (photo by: Ryan M. Place)


Here are some anecdotes from John King:

Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, was just here with his bodyguard who stayed twenty feet from him at all times. Charlie collects jazz stuff and we sold him some great jazz books.”

Teller the Magician sends us a Christmas card every year saying we’re his favorite bookstore in the world.”

“Former Michigan Governor John Engler got along surprisingly well with my dog. My dog was a Democrat and still didn’t bite him. Engler turns into a mannequin on television but in-person he’s shockingly fun and lively.”

“Actor and Detroit native Curtis Armstrong comes here. He once went on an estate call with me. Curtis was in Moonlighting, Risky Business, the Revenge of the Nerd series, etc.”

Richard Gere actually shot a movie here inside our store back in 2011 called ‘The Double’.”

The Book Club of Detroit

Great books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

“A great guy named Tom Schlientz worked for me for about a million years. He took over Charlie Boesen’s bookstore and then worked for me. He was also one of the founding members of The Book Club of Detroit back in 1957. Tom started working for me in the late 1970’s and worked for me right up until his death in 2006. Through Tom, I became a lifetime member of the Book Club of Detroit.”

The Haunting of John King’s Book Store

John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

Many people think that John King’s Book Store is haunted. Over the years, there have been numerous reports from customers of supernatural & unexplainable phenomena including: footsteps and whisperings in empty hallways, lights turning on and off, feeling like they’re being watched, inanimate objects suddenly moving, doors and cabinets opening and closing, items disappearing and reappearing, feeling something lightly brush past them, unexplainable cold spots, etc .

Years ago, we bought an estate of a murder-suicide victim. When we moved her books and other objects to the 4th floor, strange things started happening. Lights would go on and off randomly, we would hear bizarre noises, books would fall off the shelves by themselves. We weren’t scared, it was just irritating.”

John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

Tom Jr. chimes in:

“The paranormal people came in a few years ago and claimed to have located one authentic ghost. They told us that back when this was a factory, a man killed himself on the 3rd floor. He fell in love with a female co-worker. She rebuffed him, so he killed himself up there. And his ghost haunts the 3rd floor.”

John King on The Future of The Book

John K. King print catalog

Many people think that the book itself is doomed by technology, that people are only selling off personal collections and not buying books these days and that online sales have eclipsed regular store sales. According to John King, none of that is true.

The future of the book is secure. Books have lasted over 500 years and they’ll last another 500. If books were going to become obsolete, why is Amazon.com opening brick-and-mortar stores with physical books in them?”

“Right now, the Baby Boomers are croaking. Some of their subject collecting is fading. Those books that they collected so vigorously are no longer important to the next generation.”

John K. King print catalog

“It’s fluid, everything changes. Except for a few of the enduring classics, people’s tastes are fickle when it comes to books. You grow up with something and it’s in demand several decades later and then it’s gone.”

“Only a mere 10-15% of our sales are online. AbeBooks.com is our favorite online selling platform. We’re still basically a brick and mortar store and that’s where we’re most successful.”

“We discontinued our famous print catalogs about 10 years ago. However, we still have digital catalogs online. Again, we would love to do the print catalogs and could still afford to do them, except we just don’t have the time, staff or manpower to do it.”

John’s Final Thoughts

Tom Jr. and John King on the roof of John King Books with the old Train Station in the background (photo by Ryan M. Place)

“We oftentimes deal with a lot of people who have unrealistic expectations of what their books are worth on the buyer’s market. Usually, it’s some nutty person who tells them ‘Oh, your book is rare, it’s expensive’ and then we have to be the bearer of bad news and give them a reality check. My policy is to be straightforward, to the point and up front about everything right from the get-go. I don’t mess around.”

“Also, a lot of people who should come here don’t come here because they’re still scared of Detroit. Downtown Detroit is safe now, it’s not like the old days. I remember back when we were at the Michigan Theater building and we were paid by a New York City bookseller to deliver a book to a Grosse Pointe customer. His customer could’ve just come down to our store and saved the New York price markup. We have customers who travel here from Japan, France, Italy, and other countries, so locals have no excuse.”

John K. King Used & Rare Books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

“Most people’s bookstore experiences are limited to going to Barnes & Noble. They only have maybe 10,000 books per store and it’s a confusing store. They encourage employees to be robots who have to look up on the computer every time to see where a book is located in their own store. We don’t need computers here. Each member of our staff is a knowledgeable expert with years of experience. Plus, there are no donuts or coffee here, just books. We have store maps, we’re better organized and have better prices, so come down and visit us, we’d love to see you!”

As you can tell, an entire book unto itself could be written about the history and importance of John King Books. A store that has factored into so many people’s lives over the years, it serves as a major literary conduit, a hub for all those interested in the pursuit of books.

John King thrived and prospered through one of the most economically tumultuous periods since the Great Depression, the Great Recession of 2008-2016 and he did it in the fair city of Detroit, no less! We’ve all been through some serious flak together here over the years.

John King on the roof of John King Books with downtown Detroit in background (photo by: Ryan M. Place)

In 2013, the city of Detroit experienced Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Over the decades, since the 1967 Detroit Riots, 50 years ago this year, we’ve experienced massive population loss and devastation. But Detroit is on the rise. Big time. And John King is still here, riding the crest of a new wave of growth and prosperity.

Part of the reason that I personally love going to John King’s is you never know what sort of great books you’re going to find. There’s always something different and the thrill of the hunt is exciting.

It was an honor being able to sit down with John King and Tom Jr. We are grateful for the existence of John King Books and deeply indebted for having such a tremendous resource in Detroit and thankful for all they’ve done for the community over the past several decades.

If you have never visited John’s store, or if you haven’t been there in awhile, do yourself a favor and get your butt down there to buy some great books!

John K. King Used & Rare Books business card


John K. King Used & Rare Books homepage



[email protected]

John King’s online store at Abe Books


John King Books (12718 W. Warren, Dearborn) circa January 1972